Are Hope and Change tainted before Obama is even sworn in?

Historian John Robson says Barack Obama is hardly the first president or president-elect to brush with scandal - real or imagined.
John Robson | Dec 20 2008 | comment  



Is that scandal stalking Barack Obama before he is even sworn in? Senate seats for sale in Illinois; a federal grand jury investigating political donations to his choice for commerce secretary... Is he already tarnished? Hardly.

First, there is nothing scandalous about staff of a Democratic president-elect holding discussions with the Democratic governor who will fill the Senate seat he just vacated. It would be surprising if they had not. And while we do not know the content of those discussions, and an internal Obama check clearing everyone tells us little, we do know the governor of Illinois directed a string of unimaginative expletives at Mr. Obama and his advisors which suggests they were not receptive to his schemes.

Decency compels us all to admit here that many honest people have unwittingly spoken to a crook at some time in their lives. Especially if they are in politics in Illinois, where three of the last seven governors have done time and dozens of Chicago city councillors have been convicted of corruption since 1971. (As John Barber recently wrote in the Globe and Mail, the vigour with which Illinois prosecutes political corruption makes its perpetrators look stupid as well as crooked.)

History shows that a person can emerge from such a milieu not only smelling but actually being clean. For instance Paul Douglas, a distinguished economics professor who enlisted in the Marines at age 50 in 1942, got himself assigned to combat and won a bronze star and two purple hearts at Peleilu and Okinawa, and represented Illinois for three blameless Senate terms ending in 1967. And Harry Truman rose in Missouri politics with the backing of the Prendergast machine in Kansas City, yet was a man of unimpeachable personal honesty although, it turned out, in the White House he lacked judgement about the integrity of those to whom he felt loyalty.

Such blindness to the flaws of friends may not be directly scandalous. But it fulfils all its essential functions, as it did for Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding, neither of whom entered office with visible warning signs of scandal ahead. But if Barack Obama has issues respecting associates they concern not corruption but the disquieting radicalism of men like pastor Jeremiah Wright and former Weatherman Bill Ayers.

That is not to say that having friends, political associates or views that upset partisan opponents is inherently scandalous. While few elections have equalled in vitriol that of 1800, plenty of presidents have entered the White House to a chorus of abuse about their alleged extremism, including Ronald Reagan, who scandalized opinion but was not scandalous because he actually thought the West could win the Cold War.

Nor is it scandalous to face specific accusations, however serious or widely believed, that aren’t true. During the 1828 campaign at least one newspaper called Andrew Jackson the mulatto son of a British soldier’s whore, scandalous only to those who printed it. Charges that “Old Hickory” was occasionally criminally violent had better foundation, but where he was from such conduct was normal.

Even when charges have some factual basis it is important to distinguish between personal and political scandal. In 1884, Republicans taunted Grover Cleveland with “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” because he confessed to fathering an illegitimate child, possibly to protect a married friend who was sleeping with the same woman. In any event he won (prompting the counter-chant “Off to the White House ha ha ha”), then sustained as president the reputation for clean government he acquired as mayor of Buffalo. Philandering may be morally repulsive but it did not seem to diminish the political effectiveness of, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There is a blurry line between the personal and political when it comes to another popular vice. In 1853 Whigs ridiculed Democratic candidate and former General Franklin Pierce, as “the victor of many a hard-fought bottle” and alcoholism did diminish his already feeble performance in the White House, while one shudders to think of Richard Nixon answering the hot line while pickled. But fondness for strong drink has marked many successful incumbents as well, while some notably abstemious presidents were duds, so opinion is legitimately divided on the relevance of such personal vices to politics.

You wouldn’t expect it to be when someone enters the White House dragging the chains of legitimate political scandal. For instance when Bill Clinton, dangling Whitewater, his wife’s futures trading foray, and enough sexual and other escapades to tag him as “Slick Willy”. But ahead of him stand two presidents whose entry into the White House was obviously and instructively tainted.

First, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes notoriously won the 1876 election on the basis of brazenly false returns from three former Confederate states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, leading to an ugly bargain that Democrats would accept his election in return for the end of Reconstruction and federal pork for the south. His reward was one undistinguished term as “Rutherfraud” Hayes. More ominously, though rarely mentioned in polite company, every single Democrat elected to Congress from the south and every Democrat who became president with southern electoral votes from the end of Reconstruction through the 1960s is contaminated by the flagrant violent racist exclusion of blacks and Republicans from the polls secured by the bargain of 1876. This includes Woodrow Wilson and FDR.

The second relevant example, prominently featuring Illinois, is John F. Kennedy. In his memoir With No Apologies, Barry Goldwater insists he gathered enough affidavits to prove JFK stole the West Virginia Democratic primary but the attorney general failed to follow up. In any event Kennedy definitely won the close election of 1960 through electoral fraud by Richard Daley Sr.’s machine in Cook County and Lyndon Johnson’s in Texas (where Johnson also clearly won his first, narrow Senate victory in 1948 by out-cheating his adversary). Yet no taint attached to Kennedy, then or later, possibly through widespread elite feeling Richard Nixon was the sort of man who needed to have elections stolen from him. If you want real scandal, look no further.

In any case don’t look at Barack Obama. Unless surprising new facts emerge, he enters the White House untainted, directly or indirectly, by the fact that a lot of other politicians including ones from his home state are dumb crooks.

John Robson is a writer and broadcaster in Ottawa, Canada. You can read more of John at www.thejohnrobson.com

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